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Quick Strikes and Defense (Yes, Defense) Lead USF Past SMU 35-27

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It wasn’t a vintage USF performance, but there were enough big plays on both sides of the ball to power the Bulls to victory over a game SMU team.

NCAA Football: South Florida at Memphis Justin Ford-USA TODAY Sports

DALLAS — Quinton Flowers threw for 195 yards and three touchdowns and added another 142 yards rushing as the South Florida Bulls (9-2, 6-1 American East) held off the feisty SMU Mustangs 35-27 Saturday night at Gerald J. Ford Stadium.

Although the Gulf Coast Offense struggled to put together consistent production all night, it was their big play capability that carried the team through. Meanwhile, USF’s often-criticized defense came up with two game-saving plays late in the fourth quarter. Deatrick Nichols’s second interception stopped one drive, and a clutch defensive play by Auggie Sanchez on 4th and 1 at the Bulls’ 14-yard line snuffed out SMU’s final possession.

“They stepped up again for us when it counted the most, at the end,” said USF coach Willie Taggart. “I’m really proud of what those guys did out there today.

“They get criticized a lot, and rightly so, but for them to step up when we need them the most… can’t ask for much more than that.”

While most USF fans were watching a video review in the Wyoming-San Diego State game, the Bulls scored on their first play from scrimmage. Flowers pumped a short pass in the flat, then threw to a wide-open Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a 77-yard touchdown.

USF’s first offensive play of the second half was another long score. Flowers again pumped a short pass in the flat, and Tyre McCants ran past Rodney Clemons for a 65-yard touchdown. McCants had a career-high 105 receiving yards and two touchdowns on the night.

The big plays kept the Bulls afloat on a night where they struggled to stay on the field. SMU’s aggressiveness on the edges and USF’s struggles up front led to negative plays on early downs. Often behind the chains, USF was only 2 for 12 on third down, and they had to abandon their screen game.

“I didn’t think we played that well offensively,” said Taggart. “We had a lot of missed assignments and just getting beat. They (SMU) made a lot of that happen, but I thought our guys could have played a lot better up front.”

Despite the strong effort from SMU’s defense, and their relentless spying of Flowers as a runner, he and Marlon Mack were each able to top the 100-yard rushing mark. Mack also scored on a 60-yard run on a 4th and 1 in the first quarter - a carbon copy of a run he made against Syracuse earlier in the year.

USF never pulled away from SMU, but the Bulls never trailed in the game. They took the lead for good in the second quarter following a Braeden West fumble. On the next play Flowers threw a deep post for McCants, who ripped the ball away from Jordan Wyatt for a 28-yard touchdown.

“That catch in the end zone was big time,” said Taggart. “He showed his strength. He took that ball away from the kid.”

Although SMU’s Courtland Sutton set a single-game opponent receiving record with 252 yards on 13 catches, and the Mustangs gained 578 total yards, USF’s defense wasn’t completely outclassed. They held the Mustangs (5-6, 3-4 American West) to 3.3 yards per carry, sacked quarterback Ben Hicks twice, and forced three takeaways.

The defense also came up big late in the game after some sloppy offense put them under the gun. Flowers’ first turnover in four games, an interception off a deflected pass by SMU defensive end Zelt Minor, set the Mustangs up at the USF 47-yard line with a chance to tie the game with a touchdown and two-point conversion. But Nichols intercepted an errant Hicks pass seven plays later and returned it to the USF 34.

An even bigger disaster nearly befell the Bulls on their next series. Taggart called a halfback pass on a 3rd and 13 to try and land the kill shot, but SMU’s Kyran Mitchell broke through and took D’Ernest Johnson down for an 8-yard loss. Johnson made a terrible decision to try and throw the ball back to Flowers, which led to a fumble that SMU recovered. However, replay showed that Johnson’s knee was down before throwing the ball. Given a reprieve, USF was able to punt, then held SMU on downs to finish the game when Sanchez brought West down short of the line to gain.

The Bulls tied a school record with their ninth win of the season. They will have at least two chances at their first 10-win season, starting next Saturday against UCF in Tampa.